A Baby Born in Bethlehem: The Wise Men


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This is part-three in a series, read about Simeon’s response to the baby born in Bethlehem, and the response of King Herod & the Sanhedrin.

What inspires you to travel? What motivates you to get out of your house to go shopping, or get in the car and visit a relative? For many of us, travelling is an inconvenience. Time with family might be OK, and shopping is always fun – but the getting there? The bus rides, parking hassles, traffic jams, and long car-drives can get on our nerves, wearing thin whatever civility we might have started with and leaving us as road-raging adolescents.

Imagine, then, the motivation that must have been needed to travel 2,000 years ago.

“After Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of King Herod, wise men from the east arrived unexpectedly in Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him.’” – Matthew 2:1-2

What motivated these “wise men from the east” to travel so far?

It is difficult to precisely identify these wise men or where they came from. Only Matthew mentions these wise men, or Magi, and all he says is that they came “from the east”. Some believe that these Magi “were pagan astrologers whose divinatory skills were widely respected in the Greco-Roman world”[1], but even this is fraught with confusion. According to D.A. Carson:

“Several centuries earlier, the term was used for a priestly caste of Medes who enjoyed special power to interpret dreams. Daniel … refers to magoi in the Babylonian Empire. In later centuries down to NT times, the term loosely covered a wide variety of men interested in dreams, astrology, magic, books thought to contain mysterious references to the future, and the like.”[2]

As such, it is difficult not only to precisely label these Magi, but also to determine exactly where they came from. However, given that these Magi obviously had access to Jewish texts, it is not unlikely that they came from Babylon, though “possibly from Persia or from the Arabian desert.”[3] Another useful piece of information in gauging how long the Magi travelled is found in the account of Herod’s revenge on the male babies of Bethlehem.

“Then Herod, when he saw that he had been outwitted by the wise men, flew into a rage. He gave orders to massacre all the male children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old and under, in keeping with the time he had learned from the wise men.” – Matthew 2:16

The wise men’s best estimate as to when Jesus was born, based on His star in the sky, and their own travel time, leaves Herod with a two-year window that he must close if he is to assuage his fears and eradicate any challenger to his throne. Finally, we can also turn to another Biblical journey, that made by Ezra from Babylon to Jerusalem, a journey which took him at least four months, covering a distance of around 1400 kilometres.

Image Credit: Niall Drew

Image Credit: Niall Drew

History and geography lessons might seem boring (though I admit to some enjoyment on my end), but they better shape our perspective of what we are reading. These wise men didn’t just pop in for a cuppa-tea from the next town over to the east. They came a long way, journeying through difficult terrain in a day and age which wasn’t necessarily renowned for its travelling safety.

Why?

What made these wise men give up so much of their time and energy to seek out a baby born in a distance country to the west? Some commentators have suggested that their journey and intent was simply to acknowledge another king – as was the due of any king in the region. But how did these wise men even know of the birth of Jesus, let alone deem it important enough to visit? The wise men said that they “saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him” (Matthew 2:2): How many kings do you think got their own star in the sky upon their birth? Further, how many kings not only got their own star announcing their birth, but had written prophecies that allowed for people in distant nations to identify and seek out this king?

Denying the miracle of how these wise men came to worship Jesus is unfair, in my opinion. “We have seen how the Magi pursued what they knew to the utmost of their powers, and made an act of obeisance and dedication that takes our breath away.”[4] God laid out the clues thick and heavy for these wise men – a star in the sky, clues in ancient writings and prophecies – all to fulfil the words spoken years ago:

“May the kings of Tarshish
and the coasts and islands bring tribute,
the kings of Sheba and Seba offer gifts.
Let all kings bow down to him,
all nations serve him.”
Psalm 62:10-11

“Caravans of camels will cover your land—
young camels of Midian and Ephah—
all of them will come from Sheba.
They will carry gold and frankincense
and proclaim the praises of the Lord.”
Isaiah 60:6

God moved these men to seek out Jesus, and they got on their camels and travelled many long miles to do just that.

How many miles have you travelled to seek Jesus? When God has moved your heart to be aware of His Son, what has your reaction been? Did you do as the wise men did – committing to study, long-distance travel, obedience, and worship – or did you follow in the steps of the chief priests and scribes – who knew of Jesus’ birth, but did nothing about it?

The wise men didn’t only seek Jesus out, but did so to worship Him, and to bring Him gifts – offerings of praise and honour. They “gave him their offerings.

“How significant those were … Gold is the gift fit for a king – and the king in baby clothes was there. Frankincense was in constant use by priests in the temple, and the ultimate priest, the one who was to make final reconciliation between God and humankind, lay before them. Myrrh was used to embalm the dead. The man born to be king was the man born to die. In those three gifts we see who he is, what he came to do, and what it cost him.”[5]

What have you given to Jesus of late? What offering have you paid back to Him who gave all to and for you?

[1] The IVP Bible Background Commentary, ed. Craig S. Keener, p. 49
[2] The Expositor’s Bible Commentary – Matthew, D.A. Carson, p. 110 (ed. Tremper Longman III & David E. Garland)
[3] ibid, p. 111
[4] The Message of Matthew, Michael Green, p. 67 (The Bible Speaks Today, ed. John Stott)
[5] ibid, p. 69

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